2016 elections, Governance

Profit-driven, foreign interests made Aquino President; is Mar Roxas next?


Photo from arabnews.com

Recent pre-election surveys show that administration and Liberal Party (LP) bet Mar Roxas supposedly gaining ground after consistently lagging behind in previous surveys. One dubious research firm even claims that Roxas is the new man to beat. There is apparently a campaign to condition the public mind that a Roxas victory is not far-fetched after all. Roxas himself declared that “It’s my time to top the surveys.”

LP desperately intends to stay in power and Mar Roxas wants to be the next Philippine President at all costs, and an election controlled by profit-driven, foreign interests could help ensure that they do.

Former Commission on Election (Comelec) chair Sixto Brillantes recently admitted that it was the UK-based, private company Smartmatic Inc. that practically ran the 2010 national and local elections and not the poll body.

“If we were to review what happened in the 2010 first automated elections, one will realize that the Comelec then was most dependent on Smartmatic such that it was Smartmatic that practically ran the entire elections, not Comelec,” Brillantes was quoted as saying.

The ex-poll chief’s admission affirms what critics of the automated election system (AES) being implemented by the Comelec have been saying all along. An unaccountable foreign business has monopoly control over our elections, which is supposedly an expression of our democracy and sovereignty as a people.

Smartmatic was also in command of the 2013 midterm elections and will continue to play such role for the upcoming polls on May 9. It maintained its monopoly control over Philippine elections through its automation technology, the contracts it bagged with the Comelec as well as the support and other services that it will provide.

Various factions of the ruling elite aggressively vie for state power during elections not to the serve the people and develop the nation. Traditional politicians and their backers from big business and foreign interests compete for control over the state machinery out of the need to protect and advance their own political and economic interests. It is this intense and never-ending struggle for power and wealth and contradiction within the ruling elite that explain the massive spending (including of public resources) and perennial violence and fraud characterizing Philippine elections.

Put in this context and reality, a private and foreign company like Smartmatic taking over the conduct of the elections takes the subversion of the people’s sovereignty to a whole new level and makes it much easier for contending factions with vested interests to cheat. Whoever has ties – or has the resources to bid the highest – with Smartmatic can buy electoral victory.

Among the groups of the political and economic elite competing for power in the elections next week, it is the LP clique and its candidates led by presidential bet Roxas that have not only the biggest motivation (stay in power, avoid prosecution) and deepest electoral war chest (people’s money), but also the closest links with Smartmatic (through the Aquino family’s ties with Smarmatic chairman Lord Mark Malloch-Brown). Smartmatic installed Aquino as the country’s first AES President in 2010; it certainly has the capacity to do it again for Roxas.

Smartmatic-Comelec contracts

For the upcoming polls, Smartmatic is once again supplying the Comelec with VCM as it continues its profitable partnership with the poll body that started with the PCOS deals in 2010 and 2013. The Comelec is leasing a total of 97,517 VCMs from Smartmatic for about Php8.03 billion. In 2010, Smartmatic leased to the poll body 84,000 PCOS machines for Php7.2 billion. In 2013, Comelec purchased from Smartmatic some 82,000 PCOS machines for Php1.8 billion. Thus, Smartmatic has already bagged more than Php17 billion from its PCOS/VCM transactions with the Comelec for the past three elections, including the one on May 9.

Aside from the poll machines, Smartmatic also cornered contracts with the Comelec for other services. For the upcoming polls, Smartmatic is providing as well the Php558-million election results transmission services (ERTS). Smartmatic was able to corner the same contract in 2013 then worth Php405.4 million. Other contracts Smartmatic bagged in 2013 are the P154.5-million transmission modems; the P46.5-million compact flash (CF) cards main; and the P46.5-million CF cards worm. Comelec also purchased the canvassing and consolidation system (CCS) from Smartmatic in 2013 for Php36.6 million.

The privatization of Philippine elections covers not only the hardware and software for the automated polls; technical support to troubleshoot and address glitches is also controlled by Smartmatic. For the 2016 elections, Smartmatic bagged the Php122-million contract to set up a National Technical Support Center (NTSC) as a call center and troubleshooter for the elections. It was also Smartmatic that cornered the NTSC contract for the 2013 polls worth Php111.56 million.

All in all, the Smartmatic-Comelec contracts are worth well above Php18 billion as summarized in the table below. Note that the table is just a partial, incomplete list as it merely relied on data from various news reports.

Partial list of contracts bagged by Smartmatic in PH elections (in Php million)
Item 2010 2013 2016 Total
PCOS/VCM 7,200 1,800 8,030 17,030
Election Results Transmission Services 405.4 558 963.4
Transmission modems 154.5 154.5
Compact flash cards 93 93
National Technical Support Center 111.56 122 233.56
Total 7,200 2,564.46 8,710 18,474.46
Culled from various media reports

Why Smartmatic keeps on winning Comelec contracts boggles the mind especially considering the numerous and major malfunctions by the machines and services that Smartmatic provided in the past two elections. To illustrate, while the AES law mandates a 99.995% accuracy rate, Smartmatic’s PCOS machines registered a 99.6% rate in 2010 and 99.98% in 2013. These translate to hundreds of thousands of miscounted ballots and undermine the credibility of the election results. Further, Smartmatic’s ERTS is supposed to reach 100% transmission rate within 24 hours. But in 2013, it was able to achieve a mere 76% transmission rate when Comelec started declaring winners.

There have been allegations of rigged bidding to favor Smartmatic such as designing contracts where only Smartmatic can qualify or omitting requirements that will otherwise disqualify Smartmatic, a company tainted with various controversies even before it started its lucrative business here in the Philippines. For the upcoming elections’ bidding for PCOS/VCM, for instance, Comelec required that only those that can supply both the election management system and the machines could bid (which only fits Smartmatic) and that ongoing legal cases (which Smartmatic has arising from past electoral protests) should not prohibit bidders to participate. There were also similar complaints during the 2013 elections such as in the supply of CF cards. A competitor lost because its CF cards don’t work with Smartmatic’s PCOS machines as the latter refused to declare the machines’ technical requirements, which Smartmatic claimed is proprietary information.

But why does the Comelec so heavily favor Smartmatic, allowing it to monopolize the entire automated election system? One possible explanation is the political connections of Smartmatic with groups that have an interest in securing electoral victory. Smartmatic’s chairman, British Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, was the late President Cory Aquino’s campaign strategist during the 1986 snap elections (some accounts claim that Malloch-Brown’s group then – the Sawyer-Miller consultancy firm – was assigned by the US Central Intelligence Agency or CIA to Cory’s camp). In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer during his visit here in June last year, Malloch-Brown claimed that his “final outstanding accomplishment during the Cory campaign was to produce an exit poll that indicated that she had won”. Malloch-Brown has supposedly developed a close relationship with the Aquino family and there were reports that he met with Cory’s son President Benigno Aquino III and other politicians during his visit in the Philippines last year. Malloch-Brown, however denied this, apparently mindful of repercussions in public perception.

Nonetheless, the presence of Malloch-Brown, a foreigner who made a career out of influencing elections in supposedly sovereign countries and strategizing for client political elites, in a private company that runs our elections is a big red flag. It further underscores the dangers of privatizing elections that have been perpetually marred by massive fraud even before automation.

The failure of the current AES technology to reach minimum standards set by the law means that election results could not be relied upon. At best, they could just be the result of glitches caused by machine/software and human errors. At worst, they point to the planned manipulation of poll results by those who have access to the election technology or have ties with the private and foreign interests that control the technology. Both in 2010 and 2013, allegations of electronic fraud were widespread ranging from supposedly altered results being transmitted by the PCOS machines to pre-programming of results such as the so-called “60-30-10” pattern (60% of votes for administration bets; 30% for opposition; and 10% for other candidates) during the midterm senatorial election.

It doesn’t help that another seemingly favored private, foreign company is also controlling the conduct of the source code review, a supposed safeguard under the AES law that scrutinizes the software to be used by the voting machines and by the canvassing and consolidation system. For the May 2016 elections, US-based SLI Global Solutions Inc. (formerly Systest Labs Inc.) is carrying out the source code review for Php35 million as it did in 2010 and 2013.

Undermining democracy and sovereignty

To be sure, the flaws of the country’s electoral system go beyond the issue of conducting it manually or electronically. Whether manual or electronic, elections will remain undemocratic as long as the people are left to choose among the same contending factions of the political and economic elite. And these groups and families vying for control of state power in order to advance the economic and political interests they represent will continue to find ways to subvert the elections through direct cheating, political patronage and/or violence and terrorism.

But these fundamental problems of the electoral system are further worsened by allowing private and foreign companies through the technology they own to control the entire electoral process – from reading and recording of ballots to the canvassing of results. Even for the technical support, troubleshooting, installation of system, training of staff, etc., the Comelec is completely dependent on a private, foreign company.

While modernizing the way the country conducts its elections with the use of appropriate technology founded on the principles of transparency and credibility is the right step to take, the AES that the Comelec has been implementing since 2010 is further undermining election as a democratic exercise and an expression of the people’s sovereignty. ###

(Portions of this article were lifted from an article I wrote for IBON Features)

2013 elections, Privatization

Privatized, foreign-controlled elections: the original sin

Comelec privatized our elections and allowed foreign firms to control it through their patented software and technology (Photo from  The Philippine Star)

“Comelec privatized our elections and allowed foreign firms to control it” (Representatives of US-based Dominion hand over a CD containing the PCOS source code to poll chief Sixto Brillantes; Photo from The Philippine Star)

The ever controversial source code is now finally available, so says poll chief Sixto Brillantes. The catch, however, is that the review can be finished only well after the elections on Monday (May 13). The review could last for as long as six months, meaning the results will be known by as late as November. This also means that we will indeed be forced to entrust our votes to an un-scrutinized computer program. If it had serious problems, we will know after the damage has been already done. Imagine the chaos it will create if the post-election review of the source code found loopholes a high-tech Garci can easily exploit to operate an electronic dagdag-bawas.

Beyond Brillantes and Comelec

Common opinion says that such predicament could have been avoided had the Commission on Elections (Comelec) simply followed what is required under the law. Republic Act (RA) 9369 or the amended Automated Election System (AES) Law mandates the review of the source code by political parties and interest groups. Poll officials failed to implement this. The primary author of the AES Law, senatorial bet Richard Gordon, has argued before the Supreme Court (SC) that such review is imperative. The elections could not proceed without it, he said.

Is it because of plain neglect of Brillantes and the Comelec that the pre-election review was not conducted? Maybe to a certain extent. But what really hostaged the availability of the source code is the fact that it is a private technology marketed for profits by a foreign company. And that’s the original sin, so to speak.  The Comelec privatized our elections and allowed foreign firms to control it through their patented software and technology. That’s where Comelec’s bigger accountability lies.

The basic issue of private and foreign control was not corrected when Comelec bought the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines from London (UK)-based Smarmatic International Corp. in March last year. In the first place, the decision to buy the machines was more about budget constraints. Leasing brand new units entails P6.2 billion. On the other hand, Comelec reportedly spent just P1.8 billion to purchase the 81,280 PCOS machines it leased from Smartmatic in 2010. However, the know-how and technology remained with the foreign vendors.

Indeed, the AES has made Philippine elections a multi-billion peso industry dominated by foreign companies. Aside from supplying the PCOS machines for P1.8 billion, Smartmatic also cornered five other contracts with the Comelec for the 2013 polls. One is the provision through a call center of operations and technical support services to field personnel of the Comelec who will man the PCOS machines. This contract is worth P111.6 million. The others are the P405.4-million election results (ER) transmission services; the P154.5-million transmission modems; the P46.5-million compact flash (CF) cards main; and the P46.5-million CF cards worm. All in all, these Smartmatic-Comelec deals are worth almost P2.6 billion.

Corporate dispute

But Smartmatic’s monopoly of Philippine elections (and in other countries as well) is being challenged by a fellow foreign vendor. As we discovered, Smartmatic only owns the PCOS machines but not the software to run them. The software is owned by Denver (US)-based Dominion Voting Systems which unilaterally terminated in May 2012 its license agreement with Smartmatic for the Philippine elections. It led to a legal dispute in a Delaware (US) court in September 2012. Corporate legal disputes between the two election vendors are also ongoing in Mongolia and Puerto Rico.

Thus, Brillantes and the Comelec could not release the PCOS source code owned by Dominion for public review because of possible legal issues. The situation was truly odd – the entire nation was held hostage by the conflicting private interests of multinational companies. It highlighted how under the current AES, elections as a supposed exercise of national sovereignty can be so easily undermined by foreign firms that are unaccountable to anyone except their profit-seeking investors.

Prior to the agreement between Smartmatic and Dominion to allow a public review of the PCOS source code, Brillantes has repeatedly assured AES critics that SLI Global Solutions has already certified the PCOS source code so we need not worry about its trustworthiness. SLI is the third party reviewer contracted by Comelec to scrutinize the PCOS source code. Like Dominion, SLI is also based in Denver and provides “software testing, quality assurance, and independent verification and validation”. IT firms from the same US state – and with presumably many business deals forged between them in the past (like this one) – are not exactly reassuring.

Note also that because of the dispute between Smartmatic and Dominion, the additional eight enhancements to the PCOS source code that Comelec asked have not been implemented. It is unclear what exactly these enhancements are, but we know for a fact that the PCOS machines showed insufficient accuracy in properly counting the votes, among other errors, as shown in the mock elections and in the final testing and sealing (FTS). Brillantes, however, kept telling us to just give our full trust to these unaccountable, profit-driven foreign companies. It does not help that in agreeing to give the PCOS source code for public review, Smartmatic and Dominion forged a deal riddled with confidential provisions. Brillantes was quoted as saying said that these terms are covered by a non-disclosure clause and are “personal” to the disputing companies; never mind if what is at stake is the national interest.

Canvassing source code

The PCOS software or source code is just one aspect. Seldom talked about is the source code of the Canvassing and Consolidation System (CCS), which Comelec also purchased from Smartmatic for P36.6 million. Unlike the PCOS source code, the CCS source code supposedly underwent review by the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). However, we have not tested the reliability of the CCS because the FTS of the Comelec did not include the transmission, canvassing and consolidation of votes. Furthermore, the enhancements to the CCS source code were apparently not implemented, again due to Dominion’s termination of its agreement with Smartmatic. Note that in 2010, grave concerns were raised on the security and reliability of the CCS that could have resulted in wholesale cheating.

One well-documented case of possible electronic fraud using the transmission server is Biliran. The Philippine Computer Society (PCS) identified the following instances as probable proofs of electronic fraud in the province during the 2010 automated polls: (1) The Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBOC) computer received transmission of two different elections results from two different internet addresses; (2) The MBOC received a successful transmission of results from a precinct where the PCOS machine was reported to have shut down without transmitting anything; and (3) The MBOC received transmission of results 29 hours after the polling place had already closed.

The PCS explained that the first instance shows that the MBOC computers could receive results for the same precinct from several PCOS machines. The second instance, meanwhile, shows that MBOC computers could receive results independent of the PCOS machine assigned to the precinct. These two instances demonstrate that a poll cheat with access to an unauthorized PCOS machine can transmit doctored results to the MBOC.  Finally, receiving results beyond what the PCS called as “common sense range of time for transmission delay” provides cheats a very wide window to alter the authentic elections results.

Comelec accountability

While privatization and foreign control are the underlying reasons for the numerous problems facing our elections, Comelec is accountable as well along with Smartmatic and Dominion. The poll body colluded with these foreign vendors of election technology in undermining our right to vote and our right to credible, democratic and transparent elections by instituting the type of flawed AES in 2010 and again this year. Because it entered into multi-billion peso contracts with foreign companies, it is hell-bent in defending the expensive AES despite the obvious and serious defects of the system.

Elections in the Philippines are structurally flawed; winners are determined by how much guns, goons and gold they have. It marginalizes the poor and powerless while legitimizing the domination of the political and economic elite and creating the illusion of democracy. Poll automation was seen as a step forward to address some of these issues. But with the type of AES we have, it appears that we have even taken a step backward. Modernizing our electoral process through the use of technology is not necessarily wrong. However, modernization should promote transparency, credibility, accountability and people empowerment, all of which are seriously being subverted by the privatized and foreign-controlled AES of the Comelec. (End)